This is the story of how an attic once saved a man. A true story and, heaven forbid, not sad.
It began one autumn in the Great Depression, that time when all the world seemed shabby and gray, and people, young and old, were living under bridges, ghosts of the selves they'd been; grateful just for a dry spot somewhere between the kingdom of the spiders and the faces of foam rushing by in the river.
My cousin Moishe was one of these. A widower, no longer young, he'd lost the whole substance of years of work. His business, a little deli, his home, his car , his savings. Now he had only the clothes he wore and a small bundle of belongings. Now he survived by God's mercy and goodness.
Over his bridge passed some of the fortunate who still had work and their lives. Sometimes they would pause and look down at him, a troll of a man in a burlap overcoat, with matted hair and beard and a pale, high forehead, clutching his bundle. Nobody scowled; some smiled kindly; and always a few threw him coins. Some days he stood weeping in a shower of coins.
The autumn, like the river, rushed on, and the nights lengthened like icy shadows of the days. One night, when it was so cold he couldn't sleep, he realized he had to get inside somewhere for the coming winter. Counting the coins he'd saved by eating cans of beans, he found, to his scarcely believing eyes, that all told he had seven dollars, in those days almost as much as a bank.
The old landlady who came to the door of the boardinghouse where he knocked didn't even want to let him in at first. He looked like a prophet in disgrace, and his pockets bulged not with paper money, just coins. But when he offered to take the room, an attic one, sight unseen, and pay a week's rent in advance, she bade him welcome. He even got supper.
Oy, how life lifts us up sometimes, and then, without warning, we fling ourselves down! That very night as he lay in bed, listening to the cold, fierce wind blowing outside, he began to worry about what he would do when his money ran out. Perhaps it would have been better, he thought, to endure the bitter cold than to know sweet warmth again and then have to give it up.
He fell into a black depression. He forgot all about how good it was to be lying there, with a warm supper in his stomach, instead of under the bridge, with only cold beans. What was redeeming in life seemed an illusion, and what was harsh the only reality. He was not merely alone in the world, but abandoned. Not merely destitute, but condemned to destitution. Not merely going nowhere, but lost. Even the moon, perched owl-like in the tree outside the window, seemed to chortle at his plight.
It was too much. Around midnight he got up, convinced that the time had come to make away with himself.
He decided to throw himself out the window. But when he tried to open the window, it wouldn't budge, not a crack.
He went over to where his bundle lay, bent down, and drew out a pocketknife. But when he straightened up he bumped his head on the slanted ceiling, and the knife leaped out of his hand like a fish.
When he switched on the light to look for the knife, just at the instant the light went on, it gave a brittle ping, and went out.
Then the strangest thing of all happened. The attic began to sing. This was no longer the wind shaking its timbers. This was its own woody voice, booming. And what was it booming? That a man must never lose hope. That was its song. A man must never lose hope, neither for himself nor the world.
Moishe heard the song and understood at last what was happening. The attic didn't want him to die. The attic wanted to save him from himself. It was a conspiracy between the attic and God, a holy conspiracy! It was as if God had appointed the attic his honorary guardian angel, and that was not wood wrapped around him in the cold night, but wings.
With tears of thanks in his eyes Moishe repented of his foolishness and went back to bed, falling into an exhausted sleep. The next morning, all was forgiven. There was his pocketknife in plain sight, as if in token of trust. And when he tried the window, up it went.
That week Moishe became the cook of the boardinghouse, relieving the old landlady of the burden. He worked and lived there many years. Often he returned to the bridges, to help as he'd been helped, and to tell the story of the attic, of the soul's dark night and God's conspiring love.